Lessons from a failed startup
If the company goals change, the company should probably change too
In failing to build a company, I have learned many things. Core to all of them is that a company is not a product. Ideas change, products change, people change. We “pivot”, rapidly, relentlessly, sometimes ruthlessly.
Managed well, change is a catalyst. Managed badly, it can be catastrophic.
In this series, I try to explain the various ways in which I failed to understand this, and how I would endeavour to do better next time. You may notice that the style of these posts is more instructive than usual. Remember that these are mostly addressed to my future self, and as such, I am telling myself what to do; you, my dear sentient being, can do whatever you want.
We have a problem to solve. We try something. We iterate. We talk to people.
It’s highly likely that upon talking to people, your vision of your product will change. This is the point. Get used to it, share your thoughts with your colleagues, and try to make sure you’re on the same page pretty often.
Sometimes, the product vision changes so much that it nudges the company in a very different direction. At Prodo, we switched, at some point, from creating ML-powered analysis tools to much more straightforward creation tools. I think it was probably a good decision: why cure what you can prevent?
Unfortunately, I don’t remember ever actually discussing this. It just… happened. No decisions were explicitly made.
When something this big happens, it’s natural that not all of the company founders, executives, or employees will necessarily agree on the new direction. This is reasonable. Talk about it. Some people may decide to leave the company at this point, including founders (maybe even you), and you need to be ready for this.
When the dust settles, it’s time to take a hard look at which roles and responsibilities need to be fulfilled in this new company. You might find you have a missing role, or overlap. In our case, we ended up with the CTO (me) and the CEO vying for control over the product’s interfaces, which caused problems for the whole organisation.
If you don’t take the time to change the company when the vision changes, it’ll change anyway. The difference is, you won’t like the change.
More in the series
- Focus on the problem, not the solution
- If the company goals change, the company should probably change too
- "Do research" is not a corporate strategy
- Your corporate values transcend your product vision
- Trust your gut, understand your heart, and open your mind
- Go to therapy with your co-founders
- Explore the terrain first
- Unless someone cares, don't waste your time
- Code is a liability; ship without coding, if possible
- Do less, and do it better
- Agile methods are tools to try more ideas in less time
- Until you have traction, money is a trap
- If you don’t know how to do it, that’s your biggest problem
- Roles can be fluid, but they must be defined
- Camaraderie is helpful, but no substitute for working together
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